★★ / ★★★★
A dead girl with twelve stab wounds is found at dawn and a suspect (Ben Crompton) is immediately apprehended. When brothers Joe (Paul Bettany) and Chrissie (Stephen Graham) search Jason’s place, they find the girl’s bangle as well as some photos that suggest that the man has been following her for some time. And yet despite these, there is not enough evidence to keep the man locked up and so he is released. Convinced that Jason is the killer, the brothers kidnap Jason and take him to an island where their father (Brian Cox), former chief of police, used to take suspects and beat them until they confess. By the end of the night, there is a second murder case.
Though I did not know much going into it, I had a sneaky suspicion that “Blood,” written by Bill Gallagher and directed by Nick Murphy, is based on a mini-series. The elements are present in order to tell a story with depth, intensity, and intelligence but one gets the feeling that what is ultimately put on screen is merely the surface. As a result, the picture feels like a good television show that is going through a mediocre episode that won’t end.
The acting keeps the material barely afloat. Bettany and Graham inject appropriate level of gravity to their characters as they increasingly deal with the pressure of keeping a secret under wraps. It is interesting that Bettany plays the sibling that one does not necessarily expect to have a certain darkness in him while Graham, the more brutish one, at least at first glance, turns out to be the more gentle of the duo. Despite solid performances, Joe and Chrissie’s relationship fails to take off. The characters are underwritten and we do not get a complete picture of them as brothers, detectives, and men wrestling with guilty consciences.
Instead, I caught my interest moving toward the man who has a gut feeling that the two might know something about the suspect’s disappearance. Mark Strong plays Robert, a fellow detective in the force, like an enigma. We learn that he has worked with the brothers’ father and their relationship was cold to nonexistent. Robert was afraid of Lenny. So it begs the question: Is Robert honing in on Lenny’s sons for purely professional reason—or is it personal? I believe the answer is both. However, again, the screenplay does not delve into the character deeply enough to make him truly compelling.
The film has a nasty habit of providing clear-cut answers. Crime movies, especially this kind, thrive on a bit of mystery—not necessarily when it comes what is being investigated but that of the characters’ psychology, what they might be thinking or going through when they have to deal with the demons of their fellow men.
Perhaps “Blood” might have been better left as a mini-series. While it does have some good performances, it does not have the required texture and pacing of a suffocating—but compelling—crime drama-procedural. When it hits a corner content-wise, it takes shortcuts by summoning convenient coincidences. Spoon-fed audiences are almost always not engaged and certainly not challenged.
★★★ / ★★★★
Locked out from their hostel because of curfew, Paxton (Jay Hernandez), Josh (Derek Richardson), and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) were invited by Alex (Lubomír Bukový) into his room and recommended that they go to Bratislava, Slovakia if they wanted women who were willing to have sex. In need of no further convincing, the trio took the train and checked into a pretty nice hostel in which they had to share the room with Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova). They were well-endowed so the guys more than welcomed the situation. After the first night of flirting, drinking, and dancing in a club, Oli was nowhere to be found in the morning. Unbeknownst to the American backpackers, the girls were hired by a murder-for-profit group to lure them into unconsciousness only to wake up in a dungeon full of sharp tools. Written and directed by Eli Roth, “Hostel” was overwhelmingly violent even though there were only two scenes that featured torture. Two was more than enough and they were shot with incredible realism. I felt like I was there in that room and anticipated things to go very wrong and very bloody. The horror and suspense came in when the masked person about to inflict pain held up his cold instrument of choice and decided which body part he was to make contact first. As the characters screamed to the top of their lungs, vomited, and begged to be released, I wanted to look away because of the violence yet, at the same time, I was desperate to see how or if the characters could extricate themselves out of their predicament. That’s why I enjoyed the film: There was always a possibility that the characters, even though they weren’t exactly model citizens, could get away and exact revenge. Sure, they did drugs, engaged in casual hook-ups, and had a lack of respect for the locals, but not one of them deserved to be tied up in a chair and mutilated in any way. Furthermore, the picture was not devoid of a dark sense of humor and genuinely sad moments. When Paxton accidentally dropped two of his excised fingers while playing dead, he had to quickly reach for them with his three remaining fingers before the butcher, busy chopping up limbs, turned around. I was tickled with the fact that Paxton was desperate enough to keep his two fingers when what was at stake was his life. The butcher must’ve been three times his size. If he got caught, it would surely be over for him. And then there was Josh, pressured by his friend to travel all over Europe to have sex with as many women as possible. He was a closet homosexual, possibly bisexual, and there was sensitivity in his interactions with a Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasák) while in sitting in the bar. If Josh and Paxton were so close, why not just tell him the truth? Surely Paxton, if he were to look closely, could have recognized the signs. “Hostel” consistently embodied a menacing atmosphere that became more apparent and potent as the story unfolded. I watched in terror and disgust through my fingers, very thankful to have every single one of them.
Shallow Ground (2004)
★ / ★★★★
When a boy, naked and covered in blood, appeared at the police station with a knife, the three officers (Timothy V. Murphy, Stan Kirsch, Lindsey Stoddart) in charge of the small town suspected he had committed murder. But when a medic (Natalie Avital) looked at the blood sample, she discovered that the blood had come from three or four different people and the cells had been dead for about a year. “Shallow Ground,” written and directed by Sheldon Wilson, was a horror movie that made no sense. It didn’t know whether to be a slasher film or a supernatural thriller; it ended up a hybrid of both but the story was too weak to sustain our attention. There were hints that the events that were happening in the small town were happening in the city as well. Was there some kind of virus that plagued certain areas? Maybe the strange events were triggered by something alien like in George A. Romero’s zombie flicks. Instead of taking advantage of our curiosity and exploring that angle, there was a barrage of painfully unnecessary flashbacks involving a girl that one of the cops failed to rescue from a hooded, knife-wielding killer. One or two flashbacks would have sufficed but there were about ten. None of them served to push the story forward. The writer-director just wanted to hammer the fact that the cop was plagued by guilt and that was the reason we should root for him to survive. Furthermore, the picture relied too often on false alarms aided by its obnoxious music. Due to its formulaic use of scary music, we grew accustomed to its techniques. We knew exactly when something would pop out of the dark corner so there was no tension in the kills. The eerie whispers, rustling leaves, doors opening and shutting were simply not scary. The movie also tried to scare us with blood. It was almost amusing how much blood was used to the point where I managed to put them in groups. One type of blood was the kind that moved as if it had a mind of its own. It reminded me of the very inspired Black Oil saga from Chris Carter’s “The X-Files.” When touched, it gave someone a jolt and the person was able to see another’s darkest secrets. It helped to drive people to kill “the sinner.” The second type of blood was, like the film’s pacing, stagnant. It did no harm to the person who happened to touch it. I called it “regular blood.” Both types looked incredibly fake and neither generated scares. Weren’t the filmmakers aware of the fact that blood by itself didn’t necessarily equal to a good horror movie? Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” was scary because the shark ate people and then we could see blood in the water. Blood was a byproduct of something horrific, not the element that caused the terror. “Shallow Ground” failed because it tried to be too many things at once. Jack of all trades, master of none.
Don’t Look Up (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I can withstand a lot of bad movies but the really memorable ones are the movies that make me angry during and after I watch them. “Don’t Look Up,” directed by Fruit Chan, is a prime example. Marcus (Reshad Strik) was an aspiring filmmaker with psychic abilities. When he visited places with bad histories, which often involved a grizzly murder, he would receive visions and he would incorporate what he saw onto his script. While shooting a movie in Transylvania, his crew discovered an old footage of a prior film shot in their set. Soon “accidents” started to happen which led to a series of deaths until the film crew finally called it quits and left Marcus to deal with his demons. Everything about this picture was exaggerated. The acting was shockingly bad, the gore was gratuitous and unconvincing and the CGI was completely unnecessary. It was so bad, the movie tried to scare us with CGI flies. The last time I checked, CGI flies are not scary. It might have worked in Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” because that particular film had a nice balance of cheekiness and horror but “Don’t Look Up” desperately wanted to be taken seriously. Its desperate attempt to be liked left a bitter taste in my mouth. I did not appreciate its references to movies like the Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on” and Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu;” instead of paying homage, I felt like the movie was parasite and was an extremely unsatisfactory leftover. The horror did not work because it acted like it was above trying to tell a story that was interesting, involving and, most importantly, a story that made sense. I didn’t understand the connection between Marcus and his ill ex-girlfriend other than to serve as a stupid twist in the end (something along the lines of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” only lightyears less elegant). Eli Roth playing a director in the 1920s left me scratching my head. And there was no explanation why the girl was murdered back in the day and what the apparitions wanted to accomplish. A “seed” was involved which I thought was metaphorical at first but it turned out to be literal. It was just a mess and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to burn the DVD so the next person interested in watching it can use his or her precious time doing something else (perhaps read a book or volunteer at a homeless shelter). “Don’t Look Up” is a smogasboard of everything bad about modern independent horror movies that heavily rely on special and visual effects. I just don’t believe anyone in the world can actually enjoy it. I am at a loss with why it was released in the first place but I suppose connections can go pretty far. If I can prevent at least one person from watching this, I consider it a triumph.
Day of the Woman (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★
An aspiring writer (Camille Keaton) decided to live in a secluded cabin in a small town during the summer to work on her first novel. At first it seemed like a nice place because the people (Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Eron Tabor, Gunter Kleeman) she met were friendly but those were the very same sick-minded individuals who eventually tortured and gang-raped her multiple times. This exploitation flick was definitely unsettling to watch because of its extended realistic violence. However, I thought there was a certain lyricism with its lack of soundtrack and periods of time when the characters did not particularly do anything interesting. It gave me the feeling that the events that I saw could have happened and can still happen to anybody which made it that much more chilling. While the rape scenes were indeed shocking and painful to watch, I liked the way the female lead took her time to systematically plot her bloody revenge. Although the things that were unfolding were dead serious, there was a certain cheekiness and dark humor with the way Keaton used her feminine wiles to lure the men who did her wrong and to push them to their grizzly demise. The second half was stronger not just because of the revenge scenes but also due to one of the characters explaining why they decided to rape her. Of course, the classic argument of a woman “asking for it” was brought up. There was also an interesting metaphor about catching fish and getting a woman. That relationship was compelling to me because the men treated her exactly like an animal. Perhaps worse. Many elements came together in the second half that took me by surprise because, to be honest, I did not expect the material to have much insight or intelligence due to my prior experiences with exploitation movies. I was happy that it defied my expectations. It would have been easier for the picture to rely on the obviousness of the images but it had a surprising amount of subtlety. In the end, I was convinced that writer and director Meir Zarchi successfully made a feminist film. I thought it was funny that the women in the movie were portrayed as smart and strong but the men were idiots and lacked goals. “Day of the Woman” also known as “I Spit on Your Grave” had risen beyond the sadistic and the ugly and actively confronted issues such as blame, responsibility, and entitlement.
Let Me In (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A man with a badly burned face had been taken to a hospital and a detective (Elias Koteas) arrived to interview him. But when the detective stepped out of the room to talk on the telephone, the person of interest jumped from a ten-story building. Cut to a lonely kid Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who was constantly bullied in school. He spent most of his time by himself as he tried to cope with his parents’ divorce. So when a girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) and her guardian (Richard Jenkins) moved into the apartment building, naturally, Owen wanted to be friends with her unknowing of the fact that she was a vampire. “Let Me In,” directed by Matt Reeves, is very similar to Tomas Alfredson’s “Låt den rätte komma in” or “Let the Right One In.” While I did enjoy this film’s interpretation of the events, I constantly felt the need to compare it to the original. I found it difficult to separate the two because Reeves’ version did not really strive to do anything too different. From the cold locale to the grizzly murder scenes, it was just good instead of impressive because I’ve seen it all before. What I liked most about “Let Me In” was the actors. I immediately felt Smit-McPhee’s loneliness and desperation to connect with others. The scene when he called his dad to ask if evil truly existed was very sad and I just wanted to give him a hug. Moretz as the twelve-year-old vampire was accessible. I also felt her loneliness because she knew what she was and her capabilities but nobody understood her. For those who tried, such as Jenkins’ sympathetic character, they ended up getting hurt or dead. I’m giving “Let Me In” a recommendation because if I had not seen the original, I would have still enjoyed this vampire film. Its heart was always the focus instead of the blood. I always appreciate that quality especially with horror pictures because it is so much easier to deliver the violence instead of trying to explore what makes the characters tick. Further, the somber mood complemented the haunting score and vice-versa. What I felt “Let Me In” could have done was to explore Abby’s past much further. When Owen finally had a chance to enter Abby’s apartment, we saw pictures and other paraphernalia involving Abby’s mysterious past. Remaking a movie does not necessarily mean the remake should be confined to the original’s ideas. In order for the remake to be stronger, it must not be afraid to think outside the box (or even break the box) to surprise us.
★★★ / ★★★★
It was year 2019 and vampires have taken over the world while humans were forced to hide because the creatures of the night hunted and used them for blood. Now faced with a shortage of blood because there were more vampires than humans, a hematologist (Ethan Hawke), a vampire who also sympathized with humans, aimed to create a blood substitute that could solve vampires’ problems. However, the leader (Sam Neill) of the company in which the hematologist worked for and the hematologist’s brother (Michael Dorman) himself had other plans. This movie had an interesting take on vampire movies because, like “28 Days Later” in terms of zombies, it related vampirism to a disease because it talked about having a cure. That scientific angle fascinated me, even though not 100% of it made sense in the end, and appreciated that it tried to do something new with the genre. Hawke did a great job as a man who, ten years being a vampire, hated what he had become because he did not want to become a vampire in the first place. I enjoyed his interactions with Claudia Karvan, as a human who led a resistance against vampires, and Willem Dafoe, as a vampire who accidentally turned human. The action sequences where exciting, thrilling and sometimes startling because it went in directions I did not expect. I just wished that the picture had a stronger last twenty minutes. It felt anticlimactic instead of urgent (especially if the fate of the planet boiled down to one showdown) and the abrupt ending left much to be desired. I was not quite certain whether it was setting itself up for a sequel or we were supposed to be hopeful for what would happen next. The ending needed a defined tone but it did not have a chance to reach a certain point because the filmmakers did not allow it to simmer. “Daybreakers,” written and directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, caught my attention and managed to keep it because it had grand and creative ideas about vampirism. It had its weak moments such as introducing a politician who was not explored in any way but it also had strong moments showing how far vampires would go to get food. Perhaps it took itself too seriously at times (it certainly would have benefited if it had taken some pages energy-wise from “Zombieland”) but I could not help but admire how dedicated it was with its new concepts.